Sunday, 24 August 2014

Star Lord: Guardian of the Galaxy


Chris Claremont, John Byrne, Carmine Infantino & others
Star Lord: Guardian of the Galaxy (2014)

Nostalgia does it again. Naturally Mrs. Pamphlets and I took Junior to see Guardians of the Galaxy, assuming it would probably be one of those films we could all enjoy to a greater or lesser extent, as indeed it was. I had relatively fond memories of the Guardians of the Galaxy strip as reprinted in the back pages of Star Wars Weekly when I was Junior's age, but of course neither Martinex nor the fat guy from Jupiter were anywhere to be seen in the big screen adaptation, and Yondu had somehow grown up to be the ornery neighbour from The Waltons; and more confusing still was the presence of Star Lord as portrayed by the lead singer of Mouse Rat. Apparently it's all something to do with Dan Abnett, a man whose work is probably not for me given the girth of his bibliography and the presence therein of a Torchwood novel, but anyway the point is that I had similarly fond memories of the Star Lord strip, also from the back pages of Star Wars Weekly; and so here we are.

Star Lord, as I hadn't realised because Marvel UK chose not to reprint the more ropey material, was Steve Englehart's vision of an astrologically based cosmic superhero. Thankfully the character was soon rescued from its creator by Chris Claremont and John Byrne, which was where both myself and Star Wars Weekly came in. Star Lord was supposedly an attempt to write a comic with the sophistication of a novel, but a comic by the standards of 1976 specifically with the sophistication of a novel by Robert Heinlein; so as a graphic novel I suppose the guys beat more or less everyone but Will Eisner to the term, albeit with a strip which nevertheless reads like something aimed at precocious twelve-year old boys who listen to Boston.

When your starship captain wears a cape, gauntlets, and something on his head resembling a tiny model of a supersonic aircraft, then you know you're still very much in the Marvel cosmos, as distinct from Jim Starlin's Warlock which inhabited a similar realm as seen through a ton of drugs. Claremont overwrites as always with text heavy pages of soul-searching rhetoric written in the portentous tones of Leonard Nimoy addressing the main character.

Did you seek to raise a wry smile with your dandy turn of phrase and casual sarcasm, Lawrence Burton? Was it that passing pleasure which you didst sought?

Additionally, the stories are kind of thin and generic, with a surprisingly high quota of large breasted women in bikinis with affiliations to rebel or revolutionary forces, and those talkative alien bartenders who happily describe the entire socio-economic history of their respective planets to the alien dude in the funky costume. Star Lord predated Star Wars by about a year, which is probably why it flopped, having taken its best shot before the audience was really there; but it's roughly the same ball game, even to the point of beating the Lucas series to one of its major punchlines a few years ahead of time. Neverthless, Claremont somehow gets away with it - as he so often did - and for all his laboured corn, he keeps things moving in a way which holds one's attention and never feels quite so stodgy as it probably should, doubtless aided by John Byrne's generally wonderful art and Carmine Infantino's striking, almost Vorticist linework in the later strips.

Following Chris Claremont, Doug Moench took over the caped typewriter and the saga reverts to generic Marvel landfill of a kind which may well do the job if you're about eight, but seems otherwise unremarkable. The strip returned yet again in the nineties resembling one of the more forgettable series you might have seen in issues of 2000AD from the same era, but beyond a neat explanation as to the working of Star Lord's otherwise preposterous element gun, it all feels a bit pointless with innocent planets menaced by bad guys for the sake of our hero having someone to save whilst agonising over whether or not he's doing the right thing. Sadly, more than half of the collection fulfils all the promise of its bloody awful cover, but fuck it - never mind the filler; anything reprinting Carmine Infantino's breathtaking run on this strip is justified in my book.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Minority Report


Philip K. Dick Minority Report (1987)

Moving onto the fourth collection of Dick's short stories, this one fares a little better than its predecessor. It may be significant that this assemblage brings together stories written over a period of nine years, as opposed to hammered out during a couple of afternoons as was the case with at least one of the earlier volumes; although the suggestion of a more leisurely pace may be misleading, as there's actually a five year gap somewhere in the middle here during which he was presumably churning out novels, fixing television sets, getting divorced and so on. Almost certainly of greater significance is Dick's return to short form in 1963 after a long break and, more crucially, immediately following the experience of a giant metal face staring down at him from the sky. Whilst a huge slit-eyed and morally ambiguous God checking him out for the best part of a week may  doubtless have been somewhat unnerving, the vision apparently did wonders for Phil's writing if this lot are anything to go by.

This collection is already off to a good start with Autofac and at least enough solid gold Dick classics to qualify the whole as effectively a greatest hits - The Mold of Yancy, The Unreconstructed M, and War Game being at least as good as any of his novels even without their eventually being woven into The Penultimate Truth and others. Things begin to get really weird with the post-giant metal face stories as Dick's sense of humour comes to the fore, whether through the Swiftian satire of If There Were No Benny Cemoli or the raging absurdity of Novelty Act and the Jim Briskin stories; and we almost go right over the postmodern edge with the peculiarly self-referential Orpheus With Clay Feet and Waterspider, the hero of which is Dick's fellow author, Poul Anderson; and whilst we're here, I also found it slightly irresistable that A.E. van Vogt should be referenced by name in these last two stories.

Minority Report is an impressive and satisfying collection, which comes as a relief after the relatively underwhelming third volume. It's also interesting that Minority Report, probably the best known of this lot thanks to the film, is one of the few that doesn't really do much.

Accident Man


Pat Mills, Tony Skinner, Duke Mighten & others Accident Man (1993)

Accident Man, as some of you may remember, first appeared in the short-lived and wilfully outrageous Toxic! comic. I flogged my back issues of the same a while back whilst raising funds for the move to Texas, but I recall that of all the strips in Toxic! this one had at least raised the odd smile, and so this collection - comprising all of the material from Toxic! as well as a later Dark Horse miniseries of which I was unaware - ended up on my Amazon wish list. The truly weird moment came when my wife gave me this for our wedding anniversary, and I read Duke Mighten's dedication in the frontispiece which significantly credits his college lecturer Richard Straley with having set him on the right track and keeping him focused. The thing is that this same Richard Straley happens to be my uncle, that is to say my father's older brother, except none of us knew he even existed until about five years ago when someone made the connection whilst researching our family tree and discovered that our grandmother had given birth to a child during the second world war, prior to my father, and that said child had been put up for adoption. So what this adds up to is the peculiar thought - at least peculiar to me - that I was reading this stuff back in the nineties entirely unaware of it having been drawn by a student of an uncle I did not yet know I had.

It's a small world, innit!

Accident Man is an odd one even by Pat Mills' standards, a character so morally bereft and generally horrible as to make Marshal Law seem quite a nice guy, and who ends up doing good almost in spite of himself, or at least good defined as just deserts served unto persons even more repulsive than he is. Accident Man is, roughly speaking, corporate crime hoist by its own petard, with the bad guys as monsters in contrast with which even Mike Fallon's single-minded devotion to self-gratification seems almost pure or ascetic, or at least consistent. Mike Fallon, the hitman of the title arranges murders resembling accidents for money, this and the designer labels which such money can buy being the only things for which he really cares; and this forms the substance of his horrible character whilst providing the humour which glues the whole thing together.
I decided the fifteen grand YB8 just didn't cost enough. And in a world of starving millions, I really needed the twenty-five grand model.

It's a peculiar mash-up of Patrick Bateman and Robin Hood as our Republican party reptile goes after capitalist targets more commonly seen as enemies of the traditionally left-wing, but it works specifically because it's so big and dumb and funny, foreshadowing the broad brushstroke shock tactics of both Mark Millar and Grant Morrison to some extent.

I know it's poor form to speak ill of the dead, but it has to be said that the late Martin Edmond's art on the initial run really wasn't great, although it sort of works in so much as a consistently poor artist probably works better than a variety of different artists from one instalment to the next, and the writing just about holds it all together. John Erasmus - whose name is misspelt on the cover, I couldn't help but notice - gave a somewhat improved performance, or at least something amounting to Martin Edmonds as drawn by David Lloyd; but Duke Mighten steals the show with his elegant and peculiarly stylised linework perfectly suiting the mix of designer fetishism and art deco violence.

Accident Man is one of those things that really shouldn't have worked, and wouldn't have done had there been any genuinely weak links in the chain; but happily, although flawed, and although falling short of being a masterpiece, it has a charm all of its own, even if charm probably isn't quite the right word.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Dawn


Octavia E. Butler Dawn (1987)

I'm not sure if it's me or her, but each Octavia Butler novel I read seems less satisfying than the last. I recall thinking that Parable of the Sower was tremendous, and that Mind of My Mind had its moments even if it wasn't quite so convincing, but this one became a chore after the initial novelty of the premise had worn off.

The premise is that the Earth is fucked following some sort of war, and the human race has wiped itself out but for a few survivors rescued by an advanced and apparently altruistic alien species. The Oankali as they are known keep these survivors in a craft resembling a primal Eden, and are reviving them one by one, here and there making improvements at a genetic level which will aid in their survival once they all get to go back to Earth. Among the first to be revived is Lilith, the symbolism of whom is probably fairly obvious, herself being named after the Biblical Adam's first wife according to sources you're all perfectly capable of investigating under your own steam. You would think she might appreciate not only being alive, but the Oankali having cured her cancer and given her a sort of healing ability to ensure that it will neither trouble her nor anyone upon whom she lays hands ever again; but the narrative is preoccupied with coercion, things done to people against their will ostensibly for their own good, power dynamics and the like, and so Lilith is none too happy about it. As the novel increasingly comes to resemble an episode of The Outer Limits, others are revived, and none seemingly any happier about the situation than Lilith. They don't really trust her, or the supposed goodwill of the Oankali. They don't believe they're on a spacecraft. Dawn doesn't quite stoop to an angry Ernest Borgnine demanding to be let off of this stinking ship because he gots a business to run, but it comes surprisingly close.

Now, Lilith decided, was the time to Awaken two more people. She Awoke two every two or three days, no longer worrying about Awakening men since there had been no real trouble. She did deliberately Awaken a few more women than men in the hope of minimising violence.

Very wise, because you know how those men can be quite rapey at times, and who knows what could happen? If it has a penis the chance is that it will thump someone and take their dinner money before the day is over. I understand that the circumstances of the novel are supposed to be weird and exceptional, and Butler is dealing in metaphors up to a point, and as a black woman author it might be deemed fitting that she should address certain subjects traditionally ignored by other writers, but Jesus - just a little bit of faith in human nature really would have gone a long way here, as opposed to just assuming that everyone, left to their own devices, is going to try to screw you in one way or another. The sheer misanthropy of this tale, or specifically in the portrayal of its human characters makes Ayn Rand look like Martin Luther King. It reads like the work of someone who never left the house at all in some unfortunate respects.

That said, I suppose as part of a trilogy there might be some purpose to such a bleak view being given in the opening act, one which may only become apparent in the second or third instalments; but even so, as an author so frequently praised for her wonderful characterisation, there seems to be precious little of it here. The Oankali are nicely written, particularly as a plausibly alien species with three genders, but then they aren't really explored to any extent greater than that of Lilith's resentful bewilderment. Considering Dawn as the work of an author who was quite clearly more than capable of holding both sentence and story together, I'm astonished at how little I found myself caring about any of this one.

Monday, 4 August 2014

An Incomprehensible Condition


Andrew Hickey An Incomprehensible Condition (2011)

Seven Soldiers of Victory may be one of the greatest comic book series Grant Morrison has ever written - which I state as someone who isn't always particularly well disposed towards the man - and there may even be an argument for it being the greatest comic book series ever written by anyone, depending on the flavour of that which floats your boat. To suggest that it was both deep and multilayered may be misleading for its depths are quite unlike the narrative cat's cradle of Watchmen, and more in the way of a certain richness of thematic resonance. Specifically, there's so much in there of which very little is absolutely vital for at least a basic understanding of the whole, and there may even be certain pertinent details which have emerged from the creative process without having been put there in any formal sense. Bravely, Andrew Hickey here attempts to draw together some view of the larger picture of Seven Soldiers of Victory, roughly speaking that which forms the landscape at the edge of the frame.

To first dispense with a few minor niggling concerns, An Incomprehensible Condition initially appeared as a series of essays on Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!, Andrew's generally superb blog. I personally think there's a lot of scope for internet material repackaged as print, not least because I dislike reading from a screen for any length of time, but in order to truly benefit from the transition, the material needs to become a book, rather than simply a website pasted onto pages of text. In this respect An Incomprehensible Condition mostly works, although I found the footnotes providing links to assorted websites a little disconcerting, and the tone occasionally retains a little too much of that which was better suited to a more ephemeral medium - by which I mean the occasional asides (I generally take the view that there always needs to be a really good reason for anything rendered in parentheses), confessions of the occasional blind spot, and certain jokier remarks. It's not that An Incomprehensible Condition doesn't work in print, because it really does. I just feel that it could have been somehow tighter with a little more tweaking. For example, whilst the rhetorical who says the Ancient Greeks were misogynist? is a point well made, it becomes overstated and unnecessary with repetition, not least because the morality of ancient civilisations held to account by contemporary standards has always struck me as something open to more expansive debate than can be encompassed by a solitary zinger, regardless of how disgusting or inhumane their practices may have been. Finally, there's also the matter of layout with the captions of certain illustrations shunted along to form the uppermost line of the following page, which just looks a bit clumsy.

But anyway...

Regardless of the above, An Incomprehensible Condition provides an absolutely compelling read, which should not be taken for granted given the almost comical breadth of subject matter brought in for the purpose of discussing something which remains quite difficult to define. Hickey invokes William Blake or Stephen Hawking in support of some seemingly tenuous association with the previous statement, roughly nailing it down then asking or is it? like some sort of weirdly ontological James Burke before launching off in the general direction of either John Bunyan or black hole physics. That sentence undoubtedly reads like a parody, but nevertheless this is what happens as the fabric of Seven Soldiers is pulled apart, or at least invoked, taking the book a long, long way away from the descriptions of who fought who in which issue of My Greatest Adventure which a more literal-minded author might have produced; and because this is an investigation of themes rather than a series of Top Trumps, it works as a narrative in its own right regardless of the material to which it refers. Inevitably, it bewilders in places, but it also sets you to thinking, punting the reader off in unexpected directions which is only what any good book should do.

As the two persons and one basset hound comprising my regular subscribers may well be aware, Andrew Hickey is, in addition to anything else, the author of Head of State, a forthcoming Faction Paradox novel from Obverse Books. Given the impressive showing here, the weight of his philosophical arguments and the originality of his perception, I would say that novel should be eagerly anticipated.

Follow this link and buy everything you see.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The Pendragon Protocol


Philip Purser-Hallard The Pendragon Protocol (2014)

I've always enjoyed Philip Purser-Hallard's writing, and to the point of believing his name deserves to be at least as ubiquitous as those of Charles Stross, Alastair Reynolds and all those other top billing English science-fiction authors, not least because I would say that for the most part his is probably the greater talent. He's wrought some genuinely wonderful stuff within those little patches of universe left behind by the passing of the man in the blue box, and so the prospect of his first major steps away from the shallow pools of the more conspicuously licensed reaches of genre fiction has been a source of great anticipation for me. With this in mind, I must confess to some eyebrow-raising when I first read that The Pendragon Protocol would introduce us to the technologically sophisticated Knights of a twenty-first century Round Table sworn to protect us all from villainy. It made me think of Torchwood, or Primeval, or anyone who ever considered tales of secret government agencies full of superheroes with access to alien technology as being anything other than sheer arseache of the worst kind; but, I told myself, such fears will almost certainly be unfounded given the author's track record.

Happily I was right, and whilst I wouldn't quite describe this as having a startlingly original premise, as does Simon Morden on the back cover - at least not given how many times Arthur's lads have been coaxed back onto the field by everyone from Stephen King to Alan Moore to probably Pee-wee Herman - as a novel it has defied my narrative expectations, and is in all respects pretty bloody formidable. The key to this being that the author has remembered to write a book which is actually about something, as opposed to just a bunch of guys grunting and romping away with swords and cellphones for a few hundred pages.

To start with, the psychological mechanism of these Knights as the most recent expressions of an archetype is ingeniously told, precluding the need for anything so cock-obvious and hokey as reincarnated spirits, agencies of higher powers by traditional fantasy terms, or indeed anything requiring suspension of disbelief. In this sense The Pendragon Protocol does at least some of what C.S. Lewis tried to do with That Hideous Strength but without the sneering. Futhermore, reviewing That Hideous Strength, Orwell wrote:
[Lewis's beliefs] weaken his story, not only because they offend the average reader's sense of probability but because in effect they decide the issue in advance. When one is told that God and the Devil are in conflict, one always knows which side is going to win. The whole drama of the struggle against evil lies in the fact that one does not have supernatural aid.

Philip Purser-Hallard avoids this problem by means of simple narrative realism in combination with lively and unflinching investigation of the nuts and bolts of belief as it may relate to an objective reality without ostentatious demonstrations of divine power getting in the way. This refusal to stoop to the flashily miraculous allows the underlying argument of the text to really breath, to expand and to examine the greater context of belief - belief in the collective understanding of what constitutes human society, and so on. In other words, The Pendragon Protocol, rather than simply being Highlander with 'O' levels, demonstrates that belief in a Deity, a noble cause, the laws by which we define civilisation, or even that a piece of paper can stand for monetary value, are essentially aspects of the same understanding and are therefore closely related.

Jory Taylor, our main protagonist and current expression of the characteristics of the legendary Sir Gawain, here finds himself torn between two schools equating to mutually exclusive views of the moral environment he inhabits, specifically amounting to the establishment and to forces opposing the establishment, without either definitively revealed as either more corrupt or any less worthy than the other; and this seems to further translate into a dialogue between faith and belief as either a personal matter or something which comes from outside and which may be embodied in a collective institution.

Anyway, this is what I took from the novel, poorly expressed though my version may well be, which, if nothing else, is at least to say that this is a philosophically meaty read yielding some truly vertiginous revelations - at least to me - whilst rattling along at fair old pace without any sacrifice to the quality of language. To reduce that further into Daily Mail English, Philip Purser-Hallard has achieved that rare balance of a way above average intellectually stimulating novel you can read by the pool with a beer and a hot dog.  The Pendragon Protocol genuinely deserves to sell so well that we're all sick of hearing about it by this time next year, and I'm already looking forward to the second part of the trilogy.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

The Food of the Gods


H.G. Wells The Food of the Gods (1904)

Considering the graceful perfection of Wells at his very best - as found in novels of such repute as to require no formal identification - one cannot help but be astonished by the mediocrity of his lesser works, of which this is one. The Food of the Gods concerns the development of a food substance which causes dramatic and continuous growth leading to the birth of a race of giants, amongst the inevitable rats the size of cows and other creatures which eventually came to serve as b-movie staples. The science is somewhat wonky, but the point is essentially that from which Michael Crichton extrapolated most of his career, namely a catastrophic scientific genii which cannot be stuffed back into its bottle. Here an emergent race of enormous supermen serve as a metaphor for reckless scientific advance, inspiring society towards an increasingly reactionary, even Fascist state as it attempts to control its mammoth progeny.

The story would be fine in itself, but for the manner of its telling. Whilst H.G. was more than capable of crafting a respectable sentence, this one reads like he wasn't really paying attention and was thus prone to birthing monstrosities of this sort:

And the earliness of this second outbreak was the more unfortunate, from the point of view of Cossar at any rate, since the draft report still in existence shows that the Commission had, under the tutelage of that most able member, Doctor Stephen Winkles (F.R.S., M.D., F.R.C.P., D.Sc., J.P., D.L., etc.), already quite made up its mind that accidental leakages were impossible, and was prepared to recommend that to entrust the preparation of Boomfood to a qualified committee (Winkles chiefly), with an entire control over its sale, was quite enough to satisfy all reasonable objections to its free diffusion.

That's a single ninety-nine word sentence in case you're still awake and happened to wonder, and although its length is atypical, its tone is fairly representative of the rest, at least leaving aside those passages which seem to have served as precursor to the more laboured Ealing comedies. These dominate the first part of the book, very much epitomising the sort of cosy catastrophe Brian Aldiss wrongly attributes to John Wyndham - all boggle-eyed rural types with funny names marvelling at what will they think of next, and the lisping Mr. Skinner who deliverth lengthy paragraphth of bumbling content-free phonetically rendered text thuch ath we have here prethumably entirely in the thervice of communicating how theriouthly fucking thide-thplitting it can be when thomeone thpeakth with a lithp, but poththibly altho to contheal the fact of Herbert having forgotten to include a fucking thtory. This aggravating tone wanes somewhat as we plod slowly towards the conclusion of the book, by which point the giant babies are all grown and now inexplicably talking like portentous aliens from episodes of Shatner era Star Trek with the ye and the yonder and why do the small ones beleaguer us so?

The Food of the Gods could have been up there with H.G.'s greatest hits, but it reads like the author lost interest early on and was trying hard to keep himself sufficiently amused to finish it off, and to finish it off mainly just for the sake of finishing it off. There was once a tremendous novel under here somewhere, but this is dire.